Marriage is good, so let’s help twentysomethings get there

Rachel Sheffield Research Associate, The Heritage Foundation
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What’s the best age to wed? Lately, the question has stirred much discussion. Today, most Americans seem to have decided it’s later rather than sooner.

The average age of marriage has ticked up dramatically over the past four decades and is higher than at any previous time. Just 50 percent of women marry during their 20s, as opposed to nearly 90 percent in 1970. Only about a third of men marry before they reach age 30.

Is getting married when you’re older a good thing? It has some perks, according to the report Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America, out from the Relate Institute, the National Marriage Project and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Researchers suggest a later age for marriage has contributed to more stable marriages, since teens and those who marry in their early 20s are more likely to break up. (However, those who marry in their mid-20s are not much more likely to divorce than those who wait.) Women with college degrees also tend to earn higher incomes if they wait until their late 20s or early 30s to tie the knot.

But delayed marriage has significant consequences. Over the past few decades, cohabitation rates have soared. The latest numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics show that in 2010 nearly half of all women reported their “first unions” with men were cohabitation relationships, up from 34 percent in 1995.

Although cohabitation relationships appear to have become more stable as of late, cohabiters still are significantly more likely to break up than are married couples. Data also suggest that those who live together before marriage have poorer relationship quality and are more likely to divorce down the road. These trends are especially troubling when children come into the picture: Children not only are less likely to thrive in cohabiting households, but are at greater risk for experiencing the dissolution of their parents’ relationship and related consequences.

The breakdown of marriage and the rise of unwed childbearing is especially prevalent in America’s low-income neighborhoods, and increasingly more so in working-class communities. Although delayed marriage has meant delayed childbearing for college-educated women, this isn’t the case among those with lower levels of education.

The Knot Yet report dubs this trend the “Great Crossover” — the point at which the age of first birth dipped below the average age of marriage. As a result, 83 percent of children born to women with less than a high school education are born outside marriage, as are 58 percent of children born to “moderately educated” women (high school grads or those with some college). Overall, the unwed birth rate has climbed to higher than 40 percent, up from under 10 percent in the 1960s.

The great tragedy of this trend is its toll on how well children thrive. Children born to single mothers — including those who are cohabiting — are at a greater risk for a variety of negative outcomes. They are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to peers born to married parents. They also are more likely to do things that hurt their ability to succeed in life: dropping out of high school, engaging in delinquent behaviors, becoming single parents.

All of us, at every level of society, should be alarmed that more than four out of every 10 children born today begin life without the advantage of a married mother and father.

Promisingly, although marriage seriously struggles in low-income communities, many single mothers are not opposed to marriage. In fact, many idealize it. As with the majority of Americans, marriage is an important goal for them. It’s in society’s interest to direct their desires into building strong, healthy marriages.

How do we restore a culture of marriage? It won’t be a quick or easy fix. It can begin, however, with talking to young men and women, particularly those in lower-income and working-class communities, about the importance of waiting until after marriage to have children. That understanding, and useful relationship skills, will help protect them and their children from poverty and a host of other bad results.

The benefits of marriage for men, women and children include better health, higher incomes (particularly for men), greater satisfaction and longer life. Even having a positive attitude about marriage — saying that marriage is an important goal or having a desire to marry during your early 20s — is associated with fewer risk behaviors for young adults, from substance abuse to sexual promiscuity.

Twentysomethings can and do succeed in their marriages. Starting a life together with someone doesn’t necessarily have to wait until you’ve finished your education and are established in a career. Parents and friends can support decisions of couples in their 20s to marry.

No, not every marriage turns out happily ever after. But a thriving marriage culture points individuals toward stronger communities and more fulfilling, more prosperous futures.

Rachel Sheffield, a research associate in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, is co-author with Robert Rector of the paper “Understanding Poverty in the United States.” She is 29 and single.

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Rachel Sheffield